Updated at 17:25,07-01-2021

Opposition activists, environmentalists stage anti-nuclear protest in Minsk

By Syarhey Karalevich, Zakhar Shcharbakow, BelaPAN

Opposition activists protested the on-going construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus during the annual “Charnobylski Shlyakh” (Path of Chernobyl) demonstration staged Tuesday in Minsk on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

The demonstration began in the square in front of the Kastrychnik movie theater at 6 p.m. People came to the square with Ukrainian flags, Belarus’ historically national white-red-white flags and symbols of Belarusian Christian Democracy, European Belarus and other opposition groups. The demonstrators displayed banners that said, “Russia, Enough, Stop Destroying,” “Astravets—Second Chernobyl” and “Chernobyl Continues” and signs saying, “Astravets: We Won’t Live To Retirement Age,” “Chernobyl and Lukashenka—Belarusian Tragedy,” “Why Are We Not Learning Anything,” and “Nuclear Power Plant in Astravets—Test On Us.”

An activist of an anarchist group was wearing a black cloak and carrying a scythe and an “Astravets” sign.

Environmentalist Iryna Sukhi was sporting an “atomic bride” costume, consisting of a cloak with nuclear hazard signs and a symbolic bloody skull in her hands.

The demonstrators chanted slogans such as “Long Live Belarus!” and “Astravets—Second Chernobyl.” Opposition politicians Uladzimir Nyaklyayew, Vital Rymashewski, Alyaksey Yanukevich, Ihar Lyalkow, Vyachaslaw Siwchyk, and Zmitser Dashkevich were among those present.

At about 6:30 p.m., the crowd, which had swelled to up to 1000 people, headed for Bangalore Square along Independence Avenue and then Surhanava Street.

The procession followed the Chernobyl Bell and the “Mother of God of Chernobyl Victims” icon, the traditional attributes of “Charnobylski Shlyakh” marches.

At about 7:30 p.m., the marchers reached their destination, the so-called Chernobyl Chapel near Bangalore Square. However, they found the area surrounded by metal railings and accessible only through metal detector gates. On the eve of the demonstration, the Minsk city police chief had promised that the venue of the rally would not be fenced off.

Speaking through a megaphone, Mr. Rymashewski accused the police of breaking their promise and described the gates as a symbol of the “slavish, degrading regime.”

The demonstrators held the rally some distance away from the chapel, refusing to pass through police checkpoints.

Mr. Siwchyk called on those present to remember the deceased victims of the Chernobyl accident and the names of writers Ales Adamovich and Vasil Bykau, Chernobyl charity leader Henadz Hryshavy and “all others who fought the gang that now rules our land.”

After a minute’s silence, some of the demonstrators, including Messrs. Rymashewski and Yanukevich, laid flowers at the Chernobyl Chapel, while others set up the Chernobyl icon near the police barriers.

Speaking to BelaPAN, Dzmitry Kuchuk, a representative of the Belarusian Party of the Greens, warned that the nuclear power plant in Astravets might become “another Chernobyl.”

Mr. Rymashewski blamed the high incidence of cancer in Belarus on exposure to low doses of radiation as a result of the Chernobyl accident. Citing recent media reports that milk and other food products supplied from Belarus to Russia had excessive levels of radionuclides, he accused Mr. Lukashenka of “poisoning people with radiation.”

He echoed fears about Belarus’ nuclear project and criticized authorities for abolishing benefits and privileges for Chernobyl cleanup workers and rolling back respite programs for residents of Chernobyl-hit areas.

Ms. Sukhi attacked Mr. Lukashenka for his stated intention to bring idling land in those areas back into agricultural use. “This is terrible and irresponsible,” she said. “Radionuclides haven’t gone anywhere, we’re spreading them, they’re getting into our food, affecting our health. You can’t argue with facts of medical statistics.”

She expressed concern that people in contaminated villages were collecting berries and mushrooms, soothed by media reports describing them as safe.

Ms. Sukhi also noted that Chernobyl-affected localities did not have enough medical equipment for detecting malignant tumors or devices for measuring the concentration of radionuclides in food.

This year’s “Charnobylski Shlyakh” demonstration had been organized by the Belarusian Popular Front, the United Civic Party, Belarusian Christian Democracy, the Hramada Belarusian Social Democratic Party, the Belarusian Party of the Greens, and an opposition group called Razam.

Svyatlana Aleksiyevich (Svetlana Alexievich), the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, was the honorary chairperson of the organizing committee for the demonstration. She was not in attendance.

The “Charnobylski Shlyakh” demonstration has been staged by opposition forces in Minsk every year since 1988.

A crowd of up to 50,000 took part in the demonstration on the 10th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl accident, with participants overturning cars and clashing with riot police.

Dozens were injured and more than 200 were arrested. About 10,000 people took part in the demonstration on the 20th anniversary in 2006.

Last year`s “Charnobylski Shlyakh” demonstration drew some 400 people.